Elections and crime waves in Africa

From right: Peter Muthee Gachiku, Francis Muendo Ndonye, John Mwangi Kamau and Joseph Kamau Mbgua at the Kahawa Law Courts in Kiambu County. They were accused of killing of two Indians and their Kenyan taxi driver.  

What you need to know:

  • If one looks around Africa, in not-too-small countries, with furiously competitive politics and expensive elections, post-election periods are marked by big crime waves. Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa are the poster boys for this trend.

As a new crime wave swept Nairobi just over a week ago, a daily newspaper headline declared, “Nairobbery: City of lawlessness, report details damning decline in security.”

Earlier, a government official claimed that those making noise about the sharp uptick in crime were politically motivated and trying to discredit the recently elected government of President William Ruto. The suggestion there was that it was mischief by the politicians who had lost the election.

He was both wrong and right. Wrong in claiming that the new government’s opponents were making up stories of soaring crime. Right in that elections have something to do with the increase in crime – just not in the way he thinks.

If one looks around Africa, in not-too-small countries, with furiously competitive politics and expensive elections, post-election periods are marked by big crime waves. Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa are the poster boys for this trend.

In Kenya, the ascension of Ruto to office came with the inevitable change in the leadership of the Police and the disbanding of the dreaded Special Service Unit of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), which was alleged to be responsible for several cases of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances.

However, criminals are not purple-hearted human rights lovers. To them, such actions are an opportunity to act with impunity. Additionally, the transition period, when the exiting government is too lame to be effective, and the incoming one has not taken over the reins of power and established itself, is read by criminals as a vacuum in which they can operate at relatively low risk.

However, the link between the above and a rise in crime is still fairly low. The main drivers are embedded in the very structure of competitive and costly African elections.

The mass mobilisation we see in elections means that many spaces previously occupied by criminals are taken over by supporters, candidates, and their security systems. Put another way, elections take place in criminals’ “offices”, so they are not able to work.

They can still eat, though, because some politicians usually rely on criminals to run things for them during campaigns, so they get paid. Furthermore, the money, free food and drinks, and bus rides that politicians provide are enough to cater for the needs of some street levels.

Then the voting day comes, the electoral commission announces the winners and losers, and the party is over. The criminals have to provide for themselves again. Because not all of them got work from politicians and couldn’t do their business on their turf, they have to make up for lost earnings.

Two other things that have a radicalising effect happen in the campaigns. It is impressive to see how hard politicians work to get elected. A presidential candidate can cover ten districts in one day and put in 15 rallies, racing from one to the other in a dizzying logistic feat involving helicopters and myriad convoys. A gubernatorial candidate can hit the majority of the wards in her county in a day.

Having shown this incredible work rate, they mysteriously become heavy-footed when they win, unable to show up at the same places for months or years. The candidate, who was on the road from 4 am to midnight, is barely out of their house by 10 am to go and do the people’s work. Seeing a politician who couldn’t tire during the campaigns become lazy once in power doesn’t please voters.

But it is the money that the people never forget. Like Nigeria’s, Kenya’s elections are very costly. Money never seems to be an issue during campaigns for the leading candidates.

After the vote, there is no money to buy a single day’s decent meal for the young desperate urban criminals who were sucked up by the various electoral machines. However, they will have seen a lot of wealth flow into politics. A backlash is inevitable as they lash out in a frenzied bout of crime.

Democratic elections, however, don’t just change the politicians in power. They also change the system of protection for criminals.

Every new president will come with their ministers, permanent secretaries, Police, intelligence, and army leaders. A change in police leadership will result in similar changes down the force.

If you were a Kimathi Street confidential informer for an officer at Nairobi’s Central Police Station and he’s transferred to Isiolo or even dismissed from the force, you are in trouble. If you were a River Road gang leader and enjoyed police protection, you are equally exposed when the change in government brings in a whole new group of police leaders.

Wise criminals (and many of them) know that it won’t be long before they are in the crosshairs of a policeman’s rifle in the new order. They collect their pension (from the street in a crime spree) and move to a different place or steal enough to take through them a few months as they lie low, waiting to find patrons in the new regime. Make no mistake; crime is a highly rational business.